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When it comes to stopping systemic reform, the California affiliates of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers will spend as much money as they can to do so. Nine years ago, the two unions spent profligately to defeat a school choice initiative. Two years later in 2005, the two unions spent millions — including $58 million from the NEA branch alone — to defeat then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ballot initiative to increase the number of years newly-hired teachers gained near-lifetime employment from two years to five, and other initiatives aimed at reducing state spending. In the process, the NEA and AFT helped their public sector union allies weaken Schwarzenegger’s efforts to overhaul the state’s byzantine government structure and fix its woeful fiscal condition.

Then in 2010, a year after Schwarzenegger and the Democrat-controlled state legislature took advantage of the leverage given to them by the federal Race to the Top initiative and passed a series reforms (including the nation’s first Parent Trigger law and requiring the state’s teacher database to be tied to its student data system in order to allow for the use of student data in evaluating teachers), the NEA and AFT spent big to back once-and-future governor Jerry Brown’s return to the top office, and successfully back traditionalist Tom Torlakson as state schools superintendent (while defeating longstanding Gloria Romero, the former state senate honcho who worked with Schwarzenegger to pass the reforms). Both moves have guaranteed that the two unions have gotten their way on nearly every educational issue — including the passage of a law last year that bans districts from laying off teachers at the expense of fewer days in school for children in need of more time in classrooms, and Brown’s decision to cancel funding for the CalTIDES teacher data system (effectively ending efforts to overhaul teacher evaluations).

But now, the NEA and AFT find themselves on the defensive where it counts: The millions in union dues it collects annually from rank-and-file members (including teachers forced to pay so-called agency fees despite not being interested in union membership). Thanks to Sacramento-based election lawyer and ballot mastermind Tom Hiltachk, the two unions (along with other public sector unions such as the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees) must now deal with Proposition 32, a campaign finance law that would stop them from using member dues for financing ballot and political campaigns. Taking a page out of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s successful passage of the collective bargaining ban, which also put an end to the NEA and AFT forcing teachers and others to pay dues to them, Prop. 32 would only allow the two unions to collect campaign cash from members and those teachers who aren’t members but are generally supportive of their defense of traditional public education policies and practices.

Prop. 32 has already gained backing from Romero, who as head of the Golden State branch of centrist Democrat reform outfit Democrats for Education Reform, has already proven to be an even more thornier foe for the NEA and AFT (along with state Democrat party leaders who are servile to the unions). The fact that a prominent school reformer from the Democrat side is backing the effort means that other centrist Democrats — including the state branch of DFER (along with its national office), and Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst — will at the very least give the ballot measure covert support. That fact, along with the fact that Prop. 32 is being backed by a well-funded group that includes billionaire media mogul Jerry Perenchio, and the Munger family of Berkshire Hathaway fame), gives the law a good shot of passage even in a state that has long been unwilling to break with public sector unions.

These days, there are plenty of reasons why California taxpayers may be more than willing to cut the lifeblood of NEA and AFT influence — and it goes beyond the state’s myriad fiscal woes. The successful effort last month by the two unions to put the kibosh on Senate Bill 1530, which would have made it easier for districts to toss out instructors accused of criminal abuse of children such as now-former Los Angeles Unified School District teacher Mark Berndt (now facing 23 charges of what prosecutors politely calls lewd acts upon a child) has arisen the ire of families, who realize that the NEA and AFT are willing to perpetuate cultures of neglect and abuse against children in order to preserve influence. Families and taxpayers are also experiencing first hand the consequences of the NEA’s and AFT’s strong-arm of state legislators to ban financially-strapped districts from laying off teachers — including cut-back on school days at a time when children need more time in school to learn.

Then there are the long-term cost of traditional teacher compensation — including the state teachers’ retirement system’s $58 billion in defined-benefit pension deficits  (including unfunded liabilities in CALSTRS’ cash-balance and Medicaid premiums programs), and at least $16 billion in unfunded retired teacher healthcare benefits — that are weighing even more on taxpayers’ pockets. Last year, the state’s auditor declared that CALSTRS was at high risk of default in the next three decades; the fact that the pension continues to use overly inflated assumptions of investment growth and rates of return also means that the deficits are even larger than the pension publicly reports. Meanwhile year-long exposes by newspapers such as the Sacramento Bee into the high cost of so-called pension spiking, or the practice of allowing teachers and bureaucrats nearing retirement to get double-digit pay raises in their final years of work in order to gain even fatter pensions, has also led to a state investigation, once again reminding families that they pay the price for 3,090 teachers (as of 2010) getting more than $100,000 annually in pension annuities.

Given that taxpayers in San Diego and San Jose have already shown their willingness to put an end to lavish pension payments to public-sector employees last month when they passed ballot initiatives cutting annuity payouts, it wouldn’t be shocking to see the rest of the Golden State supporting the end of the mother’s milk of teachers’ union influence.

But this isn’t to say that Prop. 32 will pass easily — or at all. The NEA’s national office has already tossed the Golden State affiliate $9 million to finance opposition to the ballot measure (as well as to support Gov. Brown’s effort to increase taxes to prop up school funding); the affiliate, along with the AFT, will likely spend even more than that. Considering that Prop. 32 isn’t narrowly targeted at teachers’ unions, but at all the public sector unions whose forced dues have helped finance their influence over state government, the NEA and AFT can follow the example set last year in Ohio during the successful ballot effort to overturn the Buckeye State’s collective bargaining ban, by simply allowing their counterparts (especially AFSCME and the notorious state corrections officers’ union), do the heavy lifting.

Meanwhile centrist Democrat reformers still face a quandary. As Dropout Nation noted last month, the success of Walker’s moves in Wisconsin — including winning a landslide over the NEA, AFT and other public-sector unions in their effort to recall him from office — has shown the political value of ending forced collections of dues (along with abolishing collective bargaining privileges). By stripping the NEA and AFT of the money that sustains their influence, the unions are weakened just enough for reformers on both sides of the political aisle to finally support reform-minded candidates and advance systemic overhauls for the decade to come. Some centrist Democrats, notably DFER co-founder Whitney Tilson, have already conceded as much. Yet to come out and openly support Prop. 32 also puts them in the cross-hairs of the two unions and other education traditionalists. After all, traditionalists already recognize that the other efforts supported by centrist Democrat reformers  — including requiring the use of student data in teacher evaluations, and ending seniority-based privileges valued most by the two union’s dwindling-but-still-influential core of Baby Boomers — will do just as much to weaken teachers’ union influence as the more-upfront moves by conservative and Republican counterparts. The NEA and AFT will also sic progressives and Occupy Wall Street types they have co-opted over the past few years in order to put centrist Democrats on the defensive, further fueling a longstanding feud between the two sides over who is more Democrat than thou.

But the very fact that Romero is backing the measure speaks volumes about the acceptance among centrist Democrats that simply playing nice with NEA and AFT affiliates won’t work. This is war over the direction of American public education, in California and across the nation, and reformers won’t win by playing nice. More importantly, centrist Democrats are slowly realizing that they must adopt a single-issue focus similar to that pioneered by legendary prohibitionist Wayne Wheeler and the Anti-Saloon League during their successful passage of the 18th Amendment. And that means embracing any ballot initiative that will help weaken NEA and AFT influence.

Centrist Democrats can even argue forcefully and rightfully that by supporting Prop. 32, they are also backing the best interests of teachers, especially younger, more reform-minded professionals frustrated with the NEA’s and AFT’s allegiance to Baby Boomers in the ranks (and seniority-based policies that benefit them) at their expense. These teachers will feel the initial benefits by being able to keep more dollars that would otherwise go to dues (and political activity) in their pockets. By forcing the NEA and AFT out of the political campaign business, it may force the two unions to abandon the obsolete industrial union model to which they cling for dear life, and become true professional associations focused solely on elevating the professionalism of the teaching ranks in the same way that the American Medical Association and other such groups do.

It will be interesting to see how centrist Democrats proceed on Proposition 32. If they openly embrace the law or even just say nice words about it, then they will have tacitly accepted the Scott Walker approach to reform (even if they don’t want to admit it). And that will not be good news to the ears of NEA and AFT affiliates looking to stem membership losses.